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Women owning high performance cars

Thursday 11th November 2010

Peta Appleroth might work with dogs but she prefers her car to sound like a cat ... and a fast, meanlooking one at that.

The owner of a canine boarding kennel at Dural has just bought the latest Subaru WRX STi, one of the fastest cars on the road a car its makers say can do 0-100km/h in less than five seconds.

It's the fourth WRX Appleroth has owned and she loves everything about them. But of all the features it is perhaps the grunt of the engine that sets it apart. "They've got this particular sound where they purr like a cat," she says. "They look sexy, too, but they're mean-looking at the same time. It's nice to have a bit of power under your feet."

Appleroth is one of a number of women muscling in on what has traditionally been a very male domain the world of high- performance cars, machines that are seriously fast and in some cases seriously expensive. Appleroth paid $72,000 for her four-cylinder turbocharged Subaru, a relatively modest sum compared with some, who have been known to spend upwards of $100,000 on their customised vehicles.

These women are not fly-by-night enthusiasts, either. Theirs is a passion often forged in youth and their cars bought after a deal of sacrifice, in time or money, or both. Some like to customise their machines with number plates, big sound systems and special paintwork. Just about all know how to drive them fast. Street racing is not their thing, though, and speeding in general is something they think is best left to the hoons, although they know how to use the accelerator in a tight spot. When they want to plant the foot they take their pride and joy to the race track. Sara Clissold, 25, is one of them.

She grew up around fast cars. Her dad had rally cars and the family was involved in the Castlemaine Hot Rod Club in Victoria. Her Nissan 180SX factory SR2ODET is her 15th car and, for her, driving it is a balancing act between respecting the car's capabilities and enjoying its potential.

"I like a car to be powerful, I like it to be low to the ground, I like it to have a nice stereo. You do spend a lot of time in the car so you might as well enjoy it," she says.

On the street she drives to the conditions "100krn/h is 100krn/h, no matter what you drive", she says but when she takes it to the race track, Clissold drives as hard as the men. She has almost reached the car's top speed of 180km/h but says she doesn't drive to set records but to "push the envelope" and have fun. For her, powering into a corner on the track, gearing down, then powering out again is as thrilling as opening it up on the straight.

"You don't want to go acting like a fool on the street. When you grow up in the lifestyle I grew up in you lose a lot of friends to car accidents so you have to respect it. There are laws in place for a reason, so track days are good to test your car's and your own capabilities."

Many in the car industry say while the proportion of women who own high-performance cars is still small about 10 per cent it is growing. Andrew O'Hara, the head of Just Car Insurance, a company that specialises in insuring high-performance cars, says this growth has happened particularly over the past five years.

"It's not just the guys who love high-performance or modified cars," he says. "In fact, 30 per cent of our policy holders are women."

D'Nee Cook knows this first hand. As the assistant manager at David Nutter Ford in Berwick, Victoria, she is selling more high-performance cars to women than ever and believes this is because men are having less of a say over what their partners drive.

"It's becoming more accepted for women to come in and make their own decisions," she says. "Whereas previously it was always, 'No, she'll have the small four cylinder because she'll tap into every vehicle in the car park and I'm having the big car.' Those days are gone. It's more now that she has the nice car and hubby drives the little car."

These women are looking for similar things as men, Cook says, such as a sporty interior, big alloy wheels, good handling and when they put their foot down they want to hear the noise and feel the acceleration. "If it's a V8 it's all about the noise." 

But there are differences, too. Women personalise cars more, with number plates and stickers, so they stand out, because "people do generalise and many blokes still think we don't know how to handle [a car] ", Cook says. "But I tell you what, I can out-drive quite a few of them."

Appleroth only gets positive comments in her WRX, a big change from her previous car, a BMW Z3, which seemed to court trouble. On one such occasion a group of men tried to run her off the road.

"Luckily I managed to get away from them but it was quite a scary experience," she says. "That's why I got a WRX because nothing can catch up to them."

But for Appleroth, like Clissold, it's not all about speed. She used to take her cars to the track before she had kids but now she uses the STi to run around town with her 21/2-year-old twins in the back. So safety and reliability are things she prizes even more than before.

A spokesman for Subaru Australia, David Rowley, says these extra features are important for women, who make up almost 20 per cent of buyers of standard WRXs and 7 per cent of STis.

"As you'd expect, performance is a key factor in the purchasing decision but so is style together with safety," he says. 

Cook agrees. "At the end of the day, women do tend to do a lot more research on those sorts of aspects," she says. 

"I don't get a lot of men who come in to get a [Ford] GT and say, 'What sort of safety features has it got,' whereas women will ask for these features by name."

For Bronwyn Holmes, any extra features on her Mitsubishi Lancer GSR are there because she's put them there, not because they came with the car.

The 36-year-old from Penrith, like many others, does much of the work on her car herself and is not afraid to tinker.

"Something changes on it almost every week," she says. Sometimes it might be superficial like a sticker or seat covers; other times she will replace parts. A large part of the appeal of having a high-performance car is personalising it, she says. "My mum likes to do it with the house; I like to do it with the car."

She has owned the Lancer for 11 years and has rebuilt the gearbox, the engine and everything else besides. She's changed the turbo manifold, the brakes, the suspension, the wheels and tyres and put different body panels and skirtings on it.

From a demure four-door sedan, it now looks and drives like an Evo, Mitsubishi's version of the WRX STi. Holmes is now itching to take it to the track. She reckons it's faster than an Evo and a WRX. 

"I'll find out for sure [at the track] next week." 


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